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Better Block Foundation – Changing Neighborhoods, Changing Lives

By Elizabeth Darak

Last month I attended the Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) International Conference in Anaheim, CA and I was inspired by the opening presentation given by Jason Roberts. 

The ACT International Conference is the annual gathering of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) professionals attracting attendees from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Attendees include representatives from major employers, departments of transportation, municipalities, transportation management associations, metropolitan planning organizations, consultants, transit agencies, vendors, and other shared use mobility providers.

As I mentioned previously, Jason Roberts was the keynote speaker at the grand conference opening. He is an artist, civic activist, and urban designer whose life’s work has been dedicated to the creation of healthy, vibrant, and sustainable neighborhoods. In 2006, Jason formed the nonprofit organization, Oak Cliff Transit Authority, to revive the Dallas streetcar system, and later spearheaded the city’s effort in garnering a $23 million grant from the federal government to help reintroduce a modern streetcar system to Dallas.

In 2010, Jason organized a series of Better Block projects, taking blighted blocks with vacant properties in Dallas and converting them into temporary, walkable districts with pop-up businesses, bike lanes, cafe seating, and landscaping. 

The Better Block project started when a group of community organizers, neighbors, and property owners gathered together to revitalize a single commercial block in an underused neighborhood corridor. The group brought together all the resources from the community and converted the block into a walkable, bikeable neighborhood destination for people of all ages complete with bike lanes, cafe seating, trees, plants, pop-up businesses, and lighting. The project was developed to show the city how the block could be revived to improve area safety, health, and economics, if ordinances that restricted small business and multi-modal infrastructure were removed. 

Since then, The Better Block approach has been used in over two hundred cities around the world to illustrate rapid street changes and community revitalization. These cities have reported greater understanding and urgency by elected officials, leaders, and citizens for permanent change. Team Better Block’s work was featured in the 2012 Venice Biennale and has been spotlighted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Dwell Magazine.

Here are some example of Better Block projects.

East Grand Better Block – DES MOINES, IOWA 

The goal of East Grand Better Block was to envision a shared use trail that accommodated cyclists, skaters, joggers, people in wheelchairs, and other forms of non-motorized transportation. The community wanted to see East Grand as a place to come and stay, not just a place to get through.

Linwood Better Block – FORT WORTH, TX

Linwood Better Block demonstrated and implemented several, simple traffic calming and place-making elements in an area in transition, addressing safety and connectivity concerns from new and old residents asking for more attention.

Akron Better Block – AKRON, OH

Akron Better Block took place in the North Hill neighborhood on N. Main Street, a wide, intimidating four-lane thoroughfare that was created to quickly move cars from downtown to the suburbs. Better Block worked to reduce the scale of the street to allow for human activity and encouraged local entrepreneurs to test out their business ideas in the vacant storefronts for the weekend. The Akron Better Block team filled the gaps made by parking lots and demolished buildings by creating pedestrian plazas and fields for sports, yoga, and ping pong.  For one weekend at least, N. Main Street realized its potential as a thriving, economically viable block.

To see these Better Block projects, visit teambetterblock.com.

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